One of the stories that has either been under-reported or sadly unacknowledged recently is the death of a comedic and character actor Conrad Bain. Bain died of natural causes on January 14th , 2013. Bain is best remembered for his role of Phillip Drummond on the situation comedy Diff’rent Strokes in the early 1980s. Diff’rent Strokes is generally as famous today for being the breeding ground of troubled lives for child stars as it is for being a sit-com. By all accounts, Bain became a real father figure to his television children during their troubled lives, particularly Todd Bridges.
In reports of Bain’s death, there was a quote where Bain offered a critique of the present sit-com environment. This is a critique that I feel is actually dead on. “I think they got off the track when they first hired a standup comic to do the lead,” he said. “Instead of people creating real situations, you get people trying to act funny.”
Lets phrase it a different way. Did the enormous success of Seinfeld destroy the situation comedy? It is completely up for debate but sometimes a shining example of a new way to do things leads to a lot of less than stellar work attempting to ape it. Bain is absolutely correct in his initial assessment to the point where I don’t even really believe that we should use the term ‘situational comedy’ when describing the genre if it is in fact fronted by a career stand-up comedian. If it is fronted by a stand-up comedian, I would support the use of the term “stand-up comedy” or rather for diversity, lets call them ‘observational comedies.’ Inevitably, we can shortened it to a delineation between the ‘sit-com’ and the ‘ob-com.’ Situational Comedies at their best are when you put normal people (or close to normal people as Hollywood can get regular trained actors) in ridiculous situations.
No matter how dry your personality is, when you have to make a cell phone call to get out of a life sized birdcage that a super model you thought you would see naked locked in will be funny. That is situation comedy. Generally, a stand-up comedian will make observation on stage. Those observations will be acted out in your head. If that stand-up goes on to star in a television series and acts out the situation on air, then you have an observational comedy. To further illustrate the point, in my opinion, Diff’rent Strokes is a classic situational comedy. The Cosby Show would be an observational comedy. Friends is a situational comedy. Roseanne is an observational comedy. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is a situational comedy. Seinfeld is an observational comedy. Starting to get the picture? Good.
What Bain was really advocating was the return of the true to form situational comedy. True situational comedy is a wonderful form of entertainment. True observational comedy is a wonderful form of entertainment as well. I just think that we need to go one step further than what Bain postulated and stop actually lumping them all into the same group of being a ‘sit-com.’
It’s a nugget we should have paid more attention to. Of course, we should have paid more attention to the passing of Conrad Bain as well.